The Best TV Shows for Smart People
The Twilight Zone
Yeah, I know—you see every twist-ending coming a mile away. Well, guess what? Back in 1960, you wouldn't have. And anyway, those twists aren't what make the original Zone such a classic. Smart, soulful writing from the likes of Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and, of course, The Man himself, Rod Serling, keeps me coming back for more, year after year.
House of Cards
Many wonderful U.K. shows belong on this list ( Black Adder, I, Claudius, and Prime Suspect, to name but a few). But I'll keep the British invasion to a single entry you may not have heard of: House of Cards. Starring the late, great Ian Richardson as a deliciously evil politician scheming his way through parliament, this miniseries—plus its two followups, To Play the King and The Final Cut—features acting and writing so brilliant, you'll need welding goggles.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage
Nowadays, you can have the secrets of the universe revealed to you by any number of worthy Discovery Channel specials. But back when I was 13, Carl Sagan's excellent science and history miniseries was da bomb—and still is. Plus, it has a kickin' score by Vangelis. However, having watched it again recently, I'm dismayed to see they've cut it down and replaced the old-school 1980 special effects with cheesy modern computer-generated crapola. Boo! J'accuse!
First off, it's a cooking show on Food Network. Second, I don't even cook. So why is this on my list of smart TV? Because it's really, really smart! Host Alton Brown is a fun and goofy chef-cum-science nerd who explains the fundamental chemistry of everything that happens in one's kitchen, from boiling water to caramelizing the crust on a crème brulee. Also, it's interestingly shot. Lots of creative camera angles.
Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel
Anyone who knows me knows I am so not a sports guy. Baseball, football, water polo—I can barely tell them apart. So how is it that a newsmagazine about sports has long been my favorite program on HBO? Because first and foremost, it's a show about people. It gets me every time. It consistently sucks me into its tales of folks I've never heard of, engaged in endeavors which seemingly shouldn't interest me in the least. How does that happen? Strong, smart storytelling—that's how.
I have a problem with Beatles songs. They're so overplayed on the radio that their sheer ubiquity makes me forget how good they really are. Same deal with M*A*S*H. But then I remember how truly groundbreaking that show was. I think of how courageous it is to create a sitcom that deals in tragedy as much as comedy. Try putting something like that on any of the four networks nowadays. It would get canceled so fast, it'd make your head spin.
All in the Family
Same deal as M*A*S*H—it's easy to forget how damned good this show really is. Today, you can get away with liberal doses of sex and language on your network series, and you can portray any image of violence one could imagine. So how is it that a smart and hugely entertaining sitcom about race and politics would likely never make the prime-time schedule of 2010? Sad but true.
Yes, we know all about how great it is. Now it's time we sat down and actually watched it. Brilliant, literary, criminally underappreciated storytelling by David Simon and his wonderful team of writers.
Man, growing up, did I ever love this show! It's hard to keep sketch comedy consistently funny—and on that count, SCTV did a better job than most. Add to that the difficulty of doing it all within a specific framing device (in this case, a fictional television network) and having the discipline to maintain that device throughout. This is the only sketch comedy I can think of that has ongoing characters for whom one can feel genuine affection. Unusual, to say the least. Very Canadian, and very well-conceived.
I can't not give a shout-out to my home network, AMC. But this puts me in a bit of a quandary. If I don't include my own show, Breaking Bad, I'm being falsely modest. If I do include it, I'm an egotistical douchebag. So, false modesty it is—and I therefore give you Mad Men. No slouch, Mad Men. It pretty much defines smart television viewing on this eve of the second decade of the 21st century. Great show.
OK, it turns out I am going to lapse into "egotistical douchebag" just a little, as I worked on this series for seven years. However, I would feel remiss in leaving it off. Chris Carter created something special with Agents Mulder and Scully—a running dialectic between fact and faith, between reason and emotion. The X-Files definitely wasn't all mutants and little green men. Truly, to Chris' mind, his show was much more about big ideas, big questions. I am extraordinarily proud to have been a part of it.
Freaks and Geeks
Any series that so closely, so authentically observes life in any given time and place—in this case, high school in the early 1980s—is my idea of smart. Freaks and Geeks is full of heart, as well. Yet it's never schmaltzy or sentimental. As far as I'm concerned, NBC committed a crime against art when they canceled this show after one season.
Vince Gilligan is the series creator and executive producer of Breaking Bad . As a writer and executive producer on The X-Files , Vince shared Golden Globe Awards in 1996 and 1997 for Best Dramatic Series. His other credits include the Fox Television series The Lone Gunmen , which he co-created, and the features Hancock , starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron, and Wilder Napalm , starring Debra Winger and Dennis Quaid.